Desire, Bob Dylan’s 1976 follow-up to Blood on the Track, is best remembered for the 10-minute protest song “Hurricane” and the Mexican-tinged “Romance in Durango,” but the album’s second song, “Isis,” is among one of Dylan’s strongest narratives, creating images that rival Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone.
During the nearly seven-minute runtime of “Isis,” the song’s narrator meditates on his relationship with an ex-wife he calls Isis and also recounts a fruitless but life-changing journey for treasure. But, unlike Westerns of old, Dylan’s tale of frontier adventure is absent of violence and more based in reality, using its time and setting as a simplified allegory for a love/hate relationship between two people.
Co-written by Jacques Levy, “Isis” alludes to ancient Egyptian mythology, even going as far as to call icy mountains “pyramids.” In mythology, Osiris, the husband of the goddess Isis, is killed by his brother Seth, dismembered and thrown into the Nile. Isis resurrected Osiris and bore Osiris’ heir, Horus. The goddess Isis represents a woman who lifts up a man who is in turmoil.
Throughout the song the narrator remembers Isis, despite their falling out, as someone who keeps him going. The narrator cuts his hair and leaves her for the American frontier, eventually meeting a man at a laundry place who offers him a chance to make some easy money. The narrator and the partner set off, with the narrator picturing expensive turquoise and diamonds but still haunted by the words of Isis and how “she thought I was so reckless.”
Traveling through the “outrageous” snow, the narrator learns that the goal of the expedition is to rob a grave. Unexpectedly, the partner dies. The narrator continues to the grave to find the treasure but finds an empty tomb where he buries his partner Revenant-style.
Two interpretations can be made for why the partner (probably Seth) deceived the narrator (probably Osiris, but possible Seth-like in the way he disposes of the body in the wild). The first is that the partner knew he was going to die and wanted to be properly buried as evidenced by the narrator’s exclamation, “I felt I’d been had / When I saw that my partner was just being friendly.” The following line provides the second interpretation where the narrator might have had some kind of bounty and the partner planned to kill him (making him Seth). The line, also the climax of the song goes, “When I took up his offer / I must’ve been mad.”
The narrator rides back to Isis in the song’s resolution both agree that he will stay with her, however, the last line hints at past and most likely continuing relationship trouble, recounting their wedding day “on the fifth day of May, in the drizzling rain.” The song also includes the phrase “one day we would meet up again,” which is similar Tangled Up in Blue’s “We’ll meet again some day,” establishing some intertextuality between the albums. Both songs are allegedly inspired by Dylan’s ex-wife Sara Lownds.
The narrative Dylan and Levy crafted for “Isis” is so original, fraught with tension and twisting that its richness can still be mined 42 years later. Undoubtedly, the journey into the frontier is really a journey into the mind. Everyone has been deceived by someone else or likely oneself. But fortunately there’s always an Isis figure out there, anchoring our thoughts as the center.
Luke Furman is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. What do you think? Let Luke know by tweeting him @LukeFurmanLog or emailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org.